The Death of the Adversary – Hans Keilson

An unnamed narrator gives us his thoughts on his adversary, B. It is safe to say that B is Hitler and the narrator Jewish.

This is a novel in that a story is told, there are characters and we have dialogue. There are also events. For example, one character describes in some detail what is plainly an act of desecration of a Jewish cemetery. And on another occasion, B arrives at the same hotel the narrator is staying in and gives a speech which the narrator hears at one remove via a loudspeaker in the lounge.

This last incident gives Keilson an opportunity to analyse Hitler’s public speaking technique, which he duly does because this book is a piece of analysis in the guise of a novel. Listening to this speech, details of which we are not given, our narrator comes to an important conclusion, the underlying thesis of the book.

Why does B hate him and his like so much? Because B does not know who B is, and must create an enemy so that he will know who he is not.

To understand what is going on in this book, we only need to look at a passage like the following. It is taken from a conversation between two young shop assistants, one of whom is the narrator. How many shop assistants do we hear talking like this?

‘No,’ he said, ‘not hate him, but that your pride forbade you to identify yourself with him to such an extent that you almost forgot what you are and who he is. That is the essential nature of sympathy. But perhaps you are afraid of impoverishing yourself by submitting to limitations?’ (P74)

The author is well aware of what he is doing, so well aware that he takes out insurance policies against alienating or boring the reader. The following is one example. There is another in the concluding pages.

‘I can see plainly that I am not taking those technical pains which authors have to take in order to make their stories appear important and fascinating at any cost, since otherwise no one will read them. For them the corrections are everything. I am in the happy position of not having to bother my head about the claims of entertainment or accusations of boredom.’ (P124)

Well, I was bored and the author wasn’t bothered. It is possible to include philosophical musings in a novel. Robert Musil did it to good effect in ‘The Man Without Qualities’, but Musil was a novelist first, a philosopher second. Keilson is a philosopher first. Or perhaps we should say ‘analyst’, knowing the nature of his interest in states of mind.

An interesting book but not a good novel.

12 thoughts on “The Death of the Adversary – Hans Keilson

    • I’m sure opinions will differ greatly on this novel, but I have to admit the main reason I posted it was a prelude to a following review (still under construction) of the novel Alone in Berlin, which deals with the same period.

  1. “An interesting book but not a good novel.”—I like that statement. I think I’m stuck in a book like that right now. It’s for my book club, but I’m only 40 pages in so I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve finished.

      • I’ve read another 60 pages since I typed that comment, so I’ll tell you now. It’s “Tinkers” by Paul Harding. Luckily it’s growing on me, but it’s nothing I would have chose to read on my own. But it won the Pulitzer, so any complaints I have about it are due to my own literary ignorance and not the author’s skills. He’s clearly a gifted writer.

  2. That’s for this: it may have won the Pulitzer but I hadn’t heard of it. BTW I already have two of your recommendations in my ‘to read’ queue.

  3. I just don’t have the time to read books that are not ‘a good novel.’ My eyesight is dodgy apart from anything else. My stool results I’ll know in another couple of hours. I rather re-read good books than risk being bored.

  4. Good call, I would say. Though the author did relocate from the Fatherland to Holland when he was young, so you have something in common.

  5. I read somewhere that writers fall into several different categories, one of which is writing purely to get something off your chest, as in clarifying a train of thought. That’s fine so long as they genuinely don’t mind whether anyone reads it or not. Well done for persisting.

Leave a Reply